Building Confidence in the Kitchen
“How many of you know what this is?” said Chef Woods, the instructor of the Samueli Institute’s Teaching Kitchen program at Joint Base San Antonio, as she held up a bulb of fennel.
A few tentative hands went up and the rest of the room was befuddled. Many of them had just unknowingly devoured a dish of poached tilapia with fennel and white beans. That is, after they had whipped out their iPhones to take photos of the beautiful healthy feast.
Learning about healthy ingredients as well as how to cook them, is part of a multi-faceted approach to lifestyle education that focuses on building culinary, nutrition, exercise and mindfulness skills to increase health, resilience and wellness.
Making Food Approachable
Expert chefs, one military and one civilian, make ingredients and cooking approachable. Participants learn the whys and hows behind previously intimidating cooking techniques like sauté, short-poach and en papillotte; dishes/ingredients like homemade stocks, aoli, court-bouillon and chia seeds; and kitchen tools like fish spatulas, cartouches and immersion blenders.
Discussions include proper portions, calorie counts, and nutritional needs. For example, what are the Omega-3 guidelines and how should this play out in a person’s diet. What the different fat profiles are in regular verses free-range eggs.
Week 8 of the program is Seafood Safety, Nutrition & Sustainability. The chefs point out common roadblocks and issues participants may encounter in the kitchen, such as how lemon helps neutralizes fish, how to tell when fish is done by its feel, and how to cook safely and sustainably.
The Proof is in the Pudding
Hands that typically hold a weapon, now sprinkle carefully-portioned amounts of a Mexican cheese over pureed cauliflower.
During the food preparation component, the kitchen is reminiscent of a cooking show with participants in white aprons and black chef caps hustling to complete their dishes in time for the shared lunch. Chef explains the importance of having a plan, mentally envisioning the mis-en-place and time management.
Today’s menu included roasted chicken, poached salmon, roasted tofu, quinoa pilaf made with homemade veggie stock, cauliflower cream, greek salad and homemade vinaigrette.
“I Don’t Like Tofu but I Like This Tofu”
By tasting and cooking, participants learn that healthy food can taste good when done properly. That’s one of the tenets of the Teaching Kitchen program. Tofu, a challenging ingredient for many becomes less intimidating in the Teaching Kitchen.
To avoid the mess of pressing tofu, Chef Woods recommends baking it at 350 degrees for 15 minutes to dry it out before cooking it.
Participants learn methods to cook challenging ingredients like tofu and are encouraged to tweak recipes to their liking by adding spices and flavors that they like. With each class they building on and incorporate skills that they learned in past classes.
At the end of the three-hour kitchen time, participants sat down to eat as a group as a reward for all their hard work. The spread is proof that cooking healthy can be fun and delicious.
They leave with stomachs filled with healthy food, and armed with skills that will last a lifetime.